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5 ways Trump and the GOP disparaged science this week

An executive order sent the message that climate change doesn’t matter, and the NIH was threatened with an imminent budget cut.

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Brian Resnick is Vox’s science and health editor, and is the co-creator of Unexplainable, Vox's podcast about unanswered questions in science. Previously, Brian was a reporter at Vox and at National Journal.

Since the election, the science community has been grappling with a bleak question: Would Donald Trump — occasional climate change denier, anti-vaccination flirt, and conspiracy theorist — be the “most anti-science” president we’ve ever had?

This week, we got a better sense of what his science policy is going to look like. The series of actions that unfolded reveal an administration, and a Republic-controlled Congress, with little regard for scientific consensus and expertise swinging at President Obama’s environmental legacy.

Here’s a recap.

1) An executive order with a clear message: climate change doesn’t matter

Gage Skidmore/NASA/Getty

The big news this week: President Trump signed a long-anticipated executive order rolling back many Obama-era climate policies. While it doesn’t pull the United States out of the Paris agreement, it will make it a lot harder for the country to meet emissions reduction goals. Vox’s Brad Plumer has the best summary of what the order does — and cannot do. He explains the executive order’s eight big changes:

  1. Roll back the Clean Power Plan (Obama’s plan to cut emissions from existing US power plants 32 percent below 2005 levels by 2030)
  2. Reconsider standards for carbon emission at new coal power plants
  3. Reconsider methane emission standards for oil and gas production
  4. Potentially readjust the “social cost of carbon” — which helps the government weigh the costs and benefits of new regulations
  5. Lift the moratorium on federal coal leasing
  6. Repeal the guidance that the government needs to factor in climate change when it reviews impacts of new problems
  7. Roll back Obama-era climate executive orders on climate — including one on preparing for extreme weather
  8. Instruct all federal agencies to review all rules and policies for potential impacts to energy production

Plumer also points out things this executive order cannot do:

Overturning everything Obama has done on climate will be difficult, however. Some rules, like the fuel economy standards, can only be weakened — not killed entirely. Other regulatory rollbacks may get thwarted by federal judges. And Congress will have final say over the EPA’s budget, with even some Republicans now balking at the steep cuts Trump has been mulling to clean energy programs. ...

Trump’s executive order can’t halt all climate progress. Emissions would still decline gently in the coming years, thanks to market forces and policies that Trump can’t really touch.

Anti-climate science rhetoric from the top of Trump’s administration may also now be filtering down to the agencies. This week, Politico reports that an official at the Department of Energy’s climate office has told employees “not to use the phrases ‘climate change,’ ‘emissions reduction’ or ‘Paris Agreement’ in written memos, briefings or other written communication.”

That’s right: The Energy Department office that grants fellowships to researchers building technologies to lessen the impact of climate change has reportedly been told not to mention the term “climate change.”

2) Trump’s requests for the final 2017 budget contain considerable cuts to scientific research

Aaron P. Bernstein/Getty Images

As we reported Wednesday, the Trump White House is proposing to slash $1.2 billion from research grants at the National Institutes of Health and other health and education programs this year. And yes, this is a cut separate from the $5.8 billion NIH cut Trump is calling for in 2018.

The cut for spending this year is reportedly offsetting the $30 billion in supplementary increases in defense spending and potential costs for the border wall with Mexico. (It’s not entirely clear that the wall will be part of the supplemental defense budget.)

Trump can ask Congress to cut this year’s budget as part of a bill it needs to pass by the end of April to fund the government for the rest of the year.

And he’s not just asking for a cut in the NIH. A document outlining “reduction options” for the rest of 2017 also finds possible savings in Food and Drug Administration salaries and expenses, various cutbacks at the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, and ending new grants through the Office of Minority Health at Health and Human Services.

Still, it’s possible these cuts won’t happen. There’s already some pushback underway. Research and health groups like the American Public Health Association and the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, plus lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, are panning the proposal, particularly after the bipartisan success of the 21st Century Cures Act.

The Cures Act aimed to advance medical research and innovation though new funding, and raised the NIH budget by $4.8 billion over 10 years. Asking representatives to vote against the same research center they just funded will be a hard sell.

3) The White House doesn’t seem interested in staffing up on science and technology policy experts

science lab Alex_Traksel/Shutterstock

There’s a theme running through the Republican-led government: an outright dismissal of the need for published science and scientific expertise at the nation’s decision-making tables.

That’s reflected in Trump’s budget, which guts research programs at NIH and elsewhere. You see it reflected in his staffing decisions: He has yet to appoint a White House science adviser, and the New York Times reports that staff members of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy — the people who advise the president on science policy matters — have stepped down. It’s unclear if Trump intends to replace them.

One of the names floated for Trump’s science adviser is Will Happer, a former Princeton physics professor who told ProPublica in February the science on global warming was “very, very shaky.”

In February, I asked John Holdren, who held the position in the Obama administration, if a science adviser whose opinions conflict with the scientific consensus on climate change is better than none at all. “Absolutely,” he said. “Because somebody who knows about some domains of science and values science would still offer advice on those topics.”

But Trump doesn’t even have a climate-skeptical scientist advising him on these matters of cutting biomedical research and funding for the EPA.

4) The chair of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology continued his attack on scientific institutions and expertise

SiriusXM's Coverage Of The Republican National Convention Goes Gavel-to-Gavel On Wednesday, July 20 Kirk Irwin/Getty Images for SiriusXM

The Trump administration is emboldening science skeptics in Congress. Namely: Lamar Smith, the Texas Republican who leads the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology. That was on display this week at a Wednesday hearing of the committee on climate and the “scientific method.” The hearing included testimony from only one researcher who holds mainstream climate science views, as well as three scientists who are more skeptical.

"All too often, scientists ignore the basic tenets of science," Smith said at the hearing. "Far too often, alarmist theories on climate science originate with scientists who operate outside the principles of the scientific method." (He’s referring to the overwhelming scientific consensus that global warming is happening and is attributable to human influence.)

There was one point at the hearing where he even criticized Science magazine, which is produced by the leading journal Science. “[It] is not known as an objective … magazine,” he said.

Science isn’t perfect, but it’s a reputable source of science news and research.

By all accounts, there wasn’t much to learn from the hearing other than that Smith — and the Republicans on the committee — are still largely mistrusting of scientific institutions and consensus. As Ars Technica reports:

Despite all the back and forth, Smith didn't marshall a compelling argument that climate research had abandoned the scientific method, and the only policy recommendations he received from his expert witnesses are the ones he's been fighting to avoid. Undoubtedly, however, this will change none of his behavior.

5) The House passed two bills that would stifle science at the EPA

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Two bills out of Smith’s science committee passed the House this week. Both were proposed under the guise of increasing transparency and reproducibility at the EPA. But in effect, the bills would limit the agency’s ability to cite scientific research and consult with leading experts.

First: the HONEST Act, which stipulates that the EPA can’t make any assessment or analysis based on science that is not openly accessible to the public.

The bill reflects the rhetoric of science reformers who have been calling for increased data sharing to ensure scientific results can be reproduced. If passed by the Senate, it would mean the EPA would have to make all the data it uses in its decision-making freely available online so that public and independent researchers could more easily scrutinize its decisions — a noble aim. For sensitive health data, the bill has provisions that would give the FDA the power to redact.

But in reality, the HONEST Act would limit the pool of scientific research the EPA can cite. According to the Congressional Budget Office, the EPA cites around 50,000 scientific studies in its work every year. While scientists are getting better at publishing data sets in the open, much of that science is still locked behind paywalls or does not have publicly accessible data sets.

Second: the EPA Science Advisory Board Reform Act. This piece of legislation also seeks to make science at the EPA more transparent and less prone to conflicts of interest.

Specifically, it would change who is eligible to sit on the 48-person committee that provides outside advice and analysis to the EPA administrator. Namely, it prohibits anyone who has an ongoing research grant from the EPA to serve on the board, and prohibits board members from applying for grants for three years after they step down from the panel.

The stated intent of the bill is to make sure the panel members aren’t weighing in on grants or decisions that impact their own research.

What would actually happen, though, is academic scientists might feel a disincentive toward joining the advisory board, for fear of losing funding for their environmental science work.

Think about it: Why would environmental science experts join the panel if they knew it would potentially mean losing out on funding for three years after they quit the panel? (And panelists currently have to recuse themselves from weighing in on their own research anyway.)

These two bills are “wolf in sheep’s clothing types of statutes,” says Sarah Lamdan, a law professor who studies environmental information access at CUNY. “What’s really happening is that they’re preventing the EPA from doing its job.”

Further reading:

Vox’s Julia Belluz explains how Trump’s war on climate policy is also a war on public health.

While the big focus is on keeping carbon out of the atmosphere, what’s also significant about the plan is the hundreds of thousands of tons of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide pollution it would prevent. These greenhouse gases are not only harmful to the environment but also increase the risk of everything from asthma to heart disease.

The most damaging part of Trump’s climate change order is the message it sends.

“If there is philosophy binding together the disparate elements of the [executive order], it’s that climate change doesn’t matter,” Dave Roberts writes.

Trump's climate executive order leaves communities more vulnerable to disasters.

Extreme weather events are expected to become more frequent and unpredictable in the future, and to increase in severity. And the cost of climate-related disasters — like hurricanes, floods, and tornadoes — is higher than ever. What’s more, as the country grows wealthier, disasters are going become even costlier. So why is Trump rolling back executive orders on preparedness for extreme weather?

An alternative take: Stat News has a critical analysis of where the NIH could find savings in its budget.

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